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‘The Mine Wars’ looks at labor strife a century ago

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Coal miners in an undated photo.
Coal miners in an undated photo.Library of Congress
United Mine Workers head Frank Keeney (right, with Fred Mooney).
United Mine Workers head Frank Keeney (right, with Fred Mooney).

All history is a dialogue between past and present. A reader or viewer, shown what was, can't help but think of what is. That's especially so with "The Mine Wars." An "American Experience" documentary, it airs on
WGBH-2 Tuesday at 9 p.m.

The mines were in southern West Virginia, what came out of them was coal, and the wars took place during the first two decades of the last century. War is no exaggeration. The documentary's culminating event, the Battle of Blair Mountain, involved upward of 10,000 miners who fought with some 3,000 police and strikebreakers. Both groups were well armed. The clash, which took place over five days in the late summer of 1921, has been called the largest armed insurrection in the United States since the Civil War.


Producer-director Randall MacLowry makes the back-and-forth between past and present explicit. He alternates transfixing archival footage of miners at work — their skin blackened, dust filling the underground air — with modern-day aerial shots of hills and hollows. It's like going from Mordor to a national park. The fact that the historical footage is in black and white and the modern footage in color underscores the difference between then and now.

Except the difference is subtler than that, and this is the implicit back and forth in "The Mine Wars." All that greenery may actually be there, but so are the mines. It's just that many are now abandoned, and the socioeconomic relationship between coal mining and the rest of the nation has changed radically.

King Coal dominated the world a hundred years ago, and that dominance drove the ruthlessness of mine owners in trying to prevent unionization — and strengthened the will of miners seeking to unionize. Today coal is more serf or even outlaw than king. The most environmentally harmful fossil fuel, it's under increasing political and economic assault. Even its successor, Emperor Oil, is struggling.


"The Mine Wars" is based in part on "The Devil Is Here in These Hills," by University of Massachusetts-Boston historian James Green. Green was a consultant on the film, and his calm forthrightness makes him the most impressive of a strong group of talking heads. Among them is Chuck Keeney, a historian and the great-grandson of Frank Keeney, the United Mine Workers leader at the heart of the labor strife.

Frank Keeney is one of several vivid figures in "The Mine Wars." The legendary union organizer Mother Jones, a mine owner named Justus Collins, and a pair of renegade sheriffs, pro-operators Don Chafin and pro-miners Sid Hatfield, are at the heart of the story. On the margins are such notables as UMW President John L. Lewis and Army Air Service General Billy Mitchell, who enthusiastically offered to attack striking miners from the air.

"The Mine Wars" has a remarkable story to tell, one that's far less well known than it ought to be. For the historical footage alone, it's well worth watching. It takes its time to get to Blair Mountain and can feel diffuse. Ninety minutes might have served the material better than the two hours it gets. Michael Murphy's whiny-sour voice-over doesn't help. Sometimes it can seem as though a small group of actors has a corner on public-affairs documentary voice-overs: Murphy, Liev Schreiber, Peter Coyote, Campbell Scott, Keith David. Murphy makes you appreciate just how good the others are.



On WGBH-2, Tuesday, 9 p.m.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.